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Water quality glossary

Wondering why Waikato Regional Council measures so many different things in our lakes?

This glossary explains the importance of each different water quality measure. It includes the standards we use to assess whether the water quality is good enough for plant and animal health (ecological measures) and human recreational use.

Point source discharges

Discharges of contaminants that come from a stationary or fixed facility, for example from a pipe, ditch or drain.

Non-point source discharges

Discharges of contaminants that do not come from a single place such as an industrial site, or from a specific outlet such as a pipe. Some sources of non-point source discharge include runoff from agriculture, forestry and urban areas (for example stormwater and construction sites). Ecology icon

Ecological measures

Trophic state

A lake’s trophic state tells us about the level of nutrients (such as the chemicals nitrogen and phosphorus) and algae in the lake water. It also tells us about the range of uses that a lake has, for example its suitability for swimming.

  • Oligotrophic lakes are clear and blue, with very low levels of nutrients and algae. Lake Taupo is an oligotrophic lake.
  • Mesotrophic lakes have moderate levels of nutrients and algae. Lake Taharoa is a mesotrophic lake.
  • Eutrophic lakes are green and murky, with higher amounts of nutrients and algae. Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake) and Lake Rotomanuka are eutrophic lakes.
  • Supertrophic lakes are fertile and saturated in phosphorus and nitrogen, often associated with poor water clarity. Excessive phytoplankton growth can occur in ideal conditions - when there's a calm, hot and sunny period of a few weeks.
  • Hypertrophic lakes are highly fertile and supersaturated in phosphorus and nitrogen. They have excessive phytoplankton growth which contributes to poor water clarity, poor suitability for recreational uses, and restricts the habitat for desirable fish. Lakes Hakanoa and Ngaroto are hypertrophic lakes.

Table 1: Typical levels of total phosphorus, total nitrogen and chlorophyll a and Secchi depth in New Zealand lakes for different trophic states.

Trophic State Secchi depth
(m)
Total Phosphorus
(mg/m3)
Total Nitrogen
(mg/m3)
Chlorophyll a
(mg/m3)
Oligotrophic > 7.0 < 10 < 200 < 2
Mesotrophic 3.0 - 7.0 10 - 20 200 - 300 2 - 5
Eutrophic 1.0 - 3.0 20 - 50 300 - 500 5 - 15
Supertrophic 0.5 - 1.0 50 - 100 500 - 1500 15 - 30
Hypertrophic < 0.5 > 100 > 1500 > 30

Total phosphorus

Phosphorus is a nutrient that can encourage the growth of nuisance aquatic plants such as algal blooms. High levels of phosphorus in water can come from either waste water or, more often, runoff from agricultural land. Click to see the typical values for total phosphorus in New Zealand lakes of different trophic states.

Total nitrogen

Nitrogen can encourage the growth of nuisance aquatic plants such as algal blooms. High levels of nitrogen in water can come from either waste water or, more often, runoff from agricultural land. Click to see the typical values for total nitrogen in New Zealand lakes of different trophic states.

Chlorophyll a

Chlorophyll a is the green pigment in plants that is used for photosynthesis. Chlorophyll a is a good indicator of the total quantity of algae in a lake. Large amounts of algae in a lake can:

  • decrease the clarity of the water
  • alter the colour of the water (making it greener)
  • form surface scums
  • reduce dissolved oxygen
  • alter the pH of the water
  • produce unpleasant tastes and smells.

Click to see the typical values for chlorophyll a in New Zealand lakes of different trophic states.

Dissolved oxygen

Dissolved oxygen is important for fish and other aquatic life to breathe. Water should be more than 80 percent saturated with dissolved oxygen for aquatic plants and animals to thrive in it.

In deep lakes, where the waters don’t mix for several months over the summer, reduced dissolved oxygen in the stagnant bottom waters is of concern, especially for fish and aquatic animals. Decaying algal material that falls out of the surface water uses up dissolved oxygen in the bottom waters.

In addition, plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can be released from the lake bed sediments when the amount of dissolved oxygen in the bottom waters is reduced. When the lake waters mix in winter these nutrients become available for plant life in the surface waters. This can increase their growth causing algal blooms which reduces water clarity.
Swimming icon

Human recreational use measures

Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria

E. coli bacteria are used to indicate the human health risk from harmful microorganisms present in water – for example, from human or animal faeces.

Median
The summer median number of E. coli bacteria present in water samples should be less than 126 per 100 ml of water if it is to be used for recreation. The median is the middle number after results are ranked.

Single sample

The maximum number of E. coli bacteria present in any single water sample should be less than 550 per 100 ml of water.

Secchi Depth
Water clarity and underwater visibility is important for recreation such as swimming and water-skiing. It is also important from an aesthetic point of view – most people prefer to see clear water in our lakes.
lakesglossary3 picture

Clarity is measured using a Secchi disc attached to a tape measure. The disc is lowered into the water until it disappears; this depth is noted from the tape measure. The disc is lowered a little further and then slowly raised until it reappears, this depth is noted. The average of the two readings is the final Secchi depth visibility depth.

In clear blue lakes, with low nutrients and low algae, such as Lake Taupo, visibility should be greater than 10 metres. In murky green lakes, with high nutrients and high algal growth, visibility is one to two metres or less.

Click to see the typical values for secchi depth in New Zealand lakes of different trophic states.

Site average

The site average is the average value of the proportions found to be 'excellent', 'satisfactory' and 'unsatisfactory' for the two swimming variables.